Olivier Rochus has been handed a wildcard to next month's
Heineken Open but there's a distinct possibility that, for
the first time in the tournament's nearly 60-year history, no
Kiwis will feature in the main draw.
Rochus has twice reached the final of New Zealand's premier
men's tennis event, including this year when he was beaten by
world No 5 David Ferrer, but has dropped to 90 in the world
rankings and outside the ranking cutoff of 61 for direct
entries. But tournament director Karl Budge confirmed he had
offered the Belgian a wildcard, leaving only two wildcard
Budge hopes to confirm another by the end of the week. He's
in talks with former world No 3 David Nalbandian, former No 7
Gael Monfils and promising American Ryan Harrison, but has
made no guarantees he will follow tradition and hand the
third wildcard to a New Zealander.
Instead, he will hold off until the eve of the Heineken Open
to see who is looking for match practice immediately before
the Australian Open, in the hope of landing a big name.
It's not like New Zealanders have been presenting compelling
cases for inclusion over recent years and even longer to when
players like three-time winner Onny Parun were contenders.
Rubin Statham, at 358, is the highest ranked Kiwi followed by
Dan King-Turner (375), Michael Venus (514) and Artem Sitak
Statham was the last New Zealander to reach the second round
when he beat King-Turner in 2010 and Mark Nielsen was the
last to beat a foreign player when he dispatched Andreas
Vinciguerra in 2002.
"There are no guarantees [the third wildcard] will go to a
Kiwi," Budge said. "What I am looking at is weighing up the
best options we have available at the time. I have two to
play with between now and the tournament and one I will keep
back to see who pops up at that time.
"I have a responsibility of delivering the best possible
players we can to provide the strongest field and best
entertainment for tennis fans in New Zealand. If I don't have
a big name, absolutely.
"If it's between giving it to someone like Rubin or Dan and a
chap ranked 98 in the world no one has heard of, we would
look at giving one to a Kiwi. But if a big name is knocked
out of Brisbane early and wanted some time on court, we would
be silly to turn that down."
The best chance a New Zealander might have of making the main
draw was to come through qualifying, although that has not
proved an easy pathway. GD Jones did it in 2008 but was the
first since Malcolm Elley in 1986.
Most of the top Kiwi contingent will make the main draw of
qualifying by virtue of their ranking but Budge said he would
hand them wildcards if needed. He also said he was
considering giving one to promising 17-year-old Cameron
King-Turner said he understood where Budge was coming from
but felt one wildcard should go to a home player.
"It would be disappointing if a New Zealander wasn't given a
wildcard," he said. "It's our home tournament and it's great
to get the opportunity to play against top players. If you
can do well, it's a great kickstart to the year.
"A few years ago I went really close to beating Juan Ignacio
Chela who was ranked 15 in the world. After that match
against someone of that quality, it gave me confidence going
into the rest of the year and I had my best year."